It’s been three years since members of the experimental jam band Breastfist first took their funk-infused grooves and outlandish homemade costumes to Miami Beach's GroundUp Music Festival and left the crowd slack-jawed as they spun their web of weird across the stage. Then in 2018, they returned to the event donning wigs, feathers, and silly hats as they performed hits from their 2017 album, Amuse Deuce, a release on the GroundUp record label.
The group promises that its forthcoming performance at the fourth edition of GroundUp's festival — set to take place February 14 through 16 at the North Beach Bandshell — will uphold Breastfist's reputation for improvisational instrumentation, goofy wordplay, and playful verve.
“We don’t take ourselves very seriously, and we try to have fun with it,” bandleader, singer, and drummer Bill Campbell tells New Times. “We started this band as a way to do the things that other people wouldn’t let us do as sidemen.''
It was 2007 when Campbell, along with the group’s cofounder Alan Hampton, got tired of being told not to play certain grooves or backbeats while performing as members of other projects. The New York City residents were mulling over their options in Prospect Park when the tongue-in-cheek band name was born through a slip of the tongue: Campbell’s girlfriend mispronounced "breakfast," and the handle stuck. Upon the addition of a nipple-emulating logo — a thumb sticking through a pumped fist — Breastfist began to take shape.
Breastfist started off as a late-night party band, soundtracking intimate gigs across NYC for friends and peers who basked in the group’s unconventional soundscapes and freewheeling spirit.
“The idea is that it’s a weird dance party. We never wanted it to be a concert or a show, but something more participatory for the audience,” Campbell says.
Fast-forward to 2012, and the Breasfist duo had expanded to include a smattering of musicians rotating into the project based on their availability. Campbell began concentrating more on his songwriting in addition to drumming, and that May, he self-released Breastfist’s debut album, Tickly Shimmers.
“I always dabbled in songwriting, but I was frustrated — I felt like there was a block,” he explains. “When we started the project, I felt that I finally found the place where I could be myself and bring the weird aspect of my sense of humor into a project. I found it was easier to write music now that there was somewhere for that music to find a happy home.”
The album’s opening number, “A Lickin,” is a slow-burning, percussion-driven sing-along that paints a family of birds as a metaphor for the band’s tight-knit flock feel. The track was complemented by an aviary acid trip of a music video that stars the Breastfist bandmates as they flap across the screen while wearing technicolor beaks.
“I try to write music that’s both serious and lyrically ridiculous at the same time,” Campbell laughs. “We’re still serious about trying to play well and getting the best musicians I can to participate.”
That sweet spot between kooky and deliberate caught the ear of Snarky Puppy bandleader and GroundUp Music founder Michael League. Campbell and League are both graduates of the University of North Texas and ran in the same circles in New York, so in 2014 the Snarky Puppy figurehead reached out to ask if Breastfist would be interested in joining the label. But Campbell didn’t want to re-release Tickly Shimmers as a GroundUp record, so instead suggested revisiting the idea when he had a new album finished. Three years later, Amuse Deuce was completed.
Since joining the GroundUp family in 2017, Breastfist has supported Snarky Puppy on a handful of North American runs. Owing to budget restrictions, Campbell would travel only with one other band member, leaving Snarky Puppy musicians to learn Breastfist’s catalogue and perform their tunes. This tale might be a familiar one to Snarky Puppy fans, who have seen the Grammy-winning jazz and funk collective step in to support bands at GroundUp Music Festival in order to save room on the event's booking budget. However, while out on tour, League didn’t want the presence of members from his own band to distract from Breasfist's performance, so he would introduce the band in plainclothes and then run backstage to conceal his identity with a head-to-toe costume.
“The audience wouldn't know it was him!” Campbell laughs. “He even went as far as changing the way he moved and danced while playing. He was wearing these dinosaur-feet light-up slippers, and he would do this weird dance that was superstiff and square, [which is] unlike how he moves with Snarky Puppy, to further the disguise.”
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Although he appreciated playing with his Snarky Puppy friends as opening support, Campbell looks forward to playing at GroundUp alongside a full Breastfist outfit comprising Hampton on bass and vocals, Grey McMurray on guitar and vocals, Al Street on guitar, and Frank "Stank" LoCrasto on keys. They’ll perform at the festival proper and then during an afterparty Sunday, February 16, in downtown Miami. Campbell looks forward to showcasing two distinctly different set lists, with the afterparty performance set to carry an even naughtier zest.
“There’s a lot of room in the music for people to do what they want,” he explains. “There’s a lot of improvising, so ideally each show is unique. I like to make it an environment where everyone who’s playing with the band can really be themselves.”
It’s little wonder why League calls Breastfist, with its avant-garde flair and rebellious attitude, his “favorite live band in the universe.”
Breastfist. At GroundUp Music Festival. Friday, February 14, through Sunday, February 16, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; northbeachbandshell.com. Tickets cost $85 to $825 via groundupmusicfestival.com.